Dry November: Day 13

November 13, 2018

Last night, after a day at the British Library, a doctor’s appointment, and a catch-up meal with a friend, I took two buses home. I could have walked the roughly two miles, but as I’d been rained on at some point during the day, I was feeling wet and lazy. En route, standing at the bus stop at King’s Cross Station, after digging through my pockets and bag, I realised I had lost a notebook. It was a moleskine cahier (e.g.) which I’d started a week or two ago. Actually, I can tell you exactly when I started it: it was one week ago, the 6th of November, and it was my 62nd notebook. I know this because the cover of the previous one is labelled: 2018-10-10 to 2018-11-06, with the number 61.

This was not the first time I’d lost a notebook, but I think only two were ever really lost forever. Since they’re pocket-sized, if I’m writing at a reasonable pace, then I would typically only lose a few weeks or a month. In less cerebral days, I might lose several months, as it has sometimes taken ages to fill the paltry 64 pages, 128 sides.

That leaves the street, the hospital, or the restaurant, though on the street it would have gotten wet, maybe illegible. Nonetheless it is not yet beyond hope. I’ve neglected notebooks in pubs before, on occasion, and I’ve normally been able to retrieve them. Occasionally staff or friends have handed them back, and once, many years ago, a stranger returned one. I write not only my name, phone number, email in the front, but also an entreaty to return it, sometimes even offer a reward, after a particularly painful loss at Cambridge. More often it is a friend who recognises my name when I’m nearby, but in this case, my scribbling was saved by the kindness of a stranger, who’d picked it up, and emailed me. We met in the pub where I’d lost it, which was the Charles Lamb, near Angel. She worked for the BBC, and confessed to having read it. She had found my writing amusing and engaging, liked the “character I’d constructed,” though of course the only character I’d constructed was my own innermost thoughts and feelings. Or so I thought at the time.

There is a different tone one takes, and quality, when one writes something for others to read. On the other hand, even the most secretive of diaries is always an act of communication, even if only with one’s future self. If they were as devoid of value as notes or a used todo list, we would not care about losing or discarding them. Moreover it is quite difficult to write without a sort of phantom audience in mind, a potential reader, a jealous lover, or just some future family or executor, however inconsequential the writing might be.

My feelings at having lost writing seem to have developed. I may even have matured. A decade ago, with less perspective and less equanimity, I would probably today be deeply distraught. The fact that it’s only a single week of writing helps. It means that I’ve only lost a couple of hours, since I typically write about half an hour a day, and lately less due to writing here. But more importantly, it was writing that I had not re-read. I often feel, in the act of writing, that the thoughts are expendable, worthless even. Later, when I revisit it, I come to strange insights or revelations. I become attached. I can’t quite say whether this is because of the slight mismatch between past and present self, because the writing represents the form of a question asked in the past and answered in the present, or whether I just like reading someone whose thinking is akin to mine.

The act of writing is also cathartic, and may also represent permission to forget. So perhaps it is like encountering an external reservoir of one’s own memory, thoughts unremembered precisely because they were written down. For that reason they would seem, as they do, unfamiliar, and furthermore their loss would represent a destruction of a part of one’s mind. But as long as one has no sense of what was destroyed, it may be easier to remain tranquil in the face of such destruction.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.